There has been some discussion lately about closely reading the Book of Mormon in relation to the YW PP manual controversy. I am always one to encourage a close reading. What I am doing below is not a close reading, but rather a quick note about the perils of casual reading and eisegesis. But please, read closely. It’s a rewarding book.
Frequently, we misread the purpose of Nephi’s slaying of Laban. In my (admittedly limited) experience, we mostly go over 1 Nephi 3:7, talk about how Laban totally deserved the stabbening and beheadening, admire Nephi’s devotion to doing whatever the Lord told him to do, and move on. Generally, we use this story as a prop to reinforce the notion that, although what prophets ask us to do may sometimes be strange or illegal, we should do it because God has his own purpose. Of course, I should add “deeply immoral” to “strange or illegal” up there, but we usually don’t. That’s part of the problem.
Nephi recognizes the prompting as deeply immoral in the text. He “shrunk and would not”. Nephi questions. That he is eventually convinced (or convicted) is a different issue (to be dealt with minimally below). The text emphasizes that Nephi did not just do what he felt the Lord commanded. He, at least initially, was suspicious of the prompting and interrogated it. He certainly had reasons for wanting Laban dead (for instance, Laban had actually tried to kill him a short time earlier). But he still recognized the moral stakes involved in the act. Although he eventually became convinced it was a necessary murder, he recognized that it was murder, all the same.
Consider, in the chronology of the Book of Mormon, when the text was written. It was not written in some sort of journal, kept by Nephi during his exciting wilderness adventures. It was written by a much older Nephi, reflecting back on this moment. Perhaps he actually did just kill Laban and he is looking back, recognizing the repugnance of the act, and trying to justify it to himself. We do know that Nephi carried the burden of his faults throughout his life and that, once settled in the New World, he refused to accept a title of political leadership. We can’t know why he refused to be called king; it doesn’t seem like some sort of devotion to libertarian/liberal ideals since he let his successor be named king; nor does it seem like he preferred the glory to go to God since his people called themselves the people of Nephi and his successors were all given the title Nephi (admittedly, the people choose this name, but it’s a weird choice). Perhaps the sense of unworthiness, evident in the so-called “Psalm of Nephi,” prevented him from fully embracing leadership. Perhaps it stemmed from his acts on a dark Jerusalem night. But this is speculation based on the tiniest textual clues.
Another problem with how we read this is that we tend to take the “follow the prophets” lesson from it. But Nephi isn’t following a prophet. He is engaged in direct revelation with the Lord. And he still questions. But, just as importantly, prophets, intermediaries of any sort, simply don’t feature in this text. Certainly, there are plenty of other texts where people could find the message “follow the prophets,” but this isn’t one. This is a text about the struggle of a particular prophet with a particular form of revelation.
Nephi presents his struggle because he needs us to understand that he did struggle. Following the Lord is not easy, not just in a temporal, worldly sense, but in an internal sense. Nephi is still justifying the act, years later. He doesn’t appear to have ever felt himself free of this sin. So, rather than using this to encourage blind faith, I think that we should use the text to encourage questioning and interrogating promptings, as Nephi does. Used in concert with the story of Abraham at the time of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, we could create a theology of the value of questioning the Lord.
Finally, and I cannot emphasize this enough, if you are receiving promptings that encourage you to do things you find morally repugnant, get to a counselor or psychiatric professional now. Nephi was right to question what was going on in his mind and to try to find a rational justification for it. Nephi had to do this alone, but we enjoy the benefit and presence of many, many trained professionals who are able to provide help. In our setting, the odds that God is calling us to murder are pretty much nil. It is possible that the odds weren’t that different in Nephi’s time.